This was going to be his go-to cure, the ultimate security blanket at that point in his career when he needed one like never before.
Trouble breaking 80? Problems finding fairways? Bad vibes from a new stage called Chambers Bay? Things had gotten so bad for Tiger Woods that he had sought out the soft and pin-cushiony Old White at a Greenbrier Classic, the sort of tournament that he never would consider — only now, in this summer of disjointed golf, he needed an ego boost.
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Another visit to the Old Course at St. Andrews was going to further the road to recovery, but if this is what the doctor ordered, perhaps Woods should reconsider another primary physician. In so many ways, the 4-over 76 he signed for Thursday morning was worlds worse than the 80 with which he opened last month’s U.S. Open.
Chambers Bay was a mystery guest. The layout was peculiar, the greens laughable.
But the Old Course? Good gracious, Woods had played the place to the tune of 19 under in 2000 and 14 under in 2005 — two Claret Jugs to go, thank you very much. He didn’t own the place, not like Torrey Pines or Doral or Bay Hill or Firestone, but there wasn’t a fairway you felt he couldn’t hit, not a green he didn’t have a feel for, not a challenge he couldn’t handle.
Then he chunked his second shot into the burn at the first hole. Not since the day in 1873 when Young Tom Morris failed to win a fifth straight British Open had the folks along Links Way been so stunned.
“Unfortunately, hit it fat,” Woods said of that simple wedge shot from about 100 yards.
In four previous British Opens at the Old Course, Woods had never started bogey-bogey, but now he had. And on a morning, no less, when the John Deere Classic got carried over to the old sod. In the same wave as Woods, guys were tossing down so many birdies even the white wine in the Royal & Ancient clubhouse turned red. David Lingmerth was out in 29, while Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Robert Streb and Paul Lawrie had 31s.
Woods? He added bogeys at the par-5 fifth and par-4 seventh for an inexplicable 40. That’s right, 40. In 12 professional rounds during those three previous British Opens here — 2000, 2005, 2010 — Woods had played the front in 19 under; nine times he had broken par, twice he had matched par, once he had posted a 37.
Forty? Holy hole in the green, Batman.
By the turn, Woods was already a whopping 10 strokes off the lead, lodged in a place where we are becoming accustomed to seeing him — in the basement — and as painful as that is to those of us who have witnessed so much of his major-winning glory, what’s even more amazing is that he almost seems resigned to it these days.
Months ago, back when he was shooting 82 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, he talked of “a process.” Then, around the time when he shot 85 at the Memorial, Woods changed his tack. It was all about “a baseline shift,” as if he were trying to fight off a pick for a fadeaway. Confounding stuff, but in a week when his game was going to be rejuvenated, Woods seemed not angry, not in shock, but rather sedate.
He might have been one of just two men in the first 19 games — a total of 57 players — who didn’t make an outward birdie and he might very well have seen his last chance for a Claret Jug at the Old Course evaporate (he will be 45 when the British Open is likely to be held here again, in 2021), but with a confidence that seemed shallow and lacked the fire that used to be his trademark, he said “I fought hard.”
His reference point was the inward 36 — a bogey at the 10th, a birdie at the par-5 14th, seven pars — and it sounded strange, in an unpleasant way, to hear him talk like that. He is 11 off the lead after just 18 holes, and as if that isn’t shocking enough, consider this:
● Woods had played the first round in 67, 66, 67 in his previous three British Opens at St. Andrews, a whopping 15 under.
● He had birdied the par-4 ninth six consecutive times and had played it in 10 under in those three previous British Opens. Thursday, he did well to make four.
● He bogeyed the par-4 first and par-4 10th for just the second time in his pro career.
● But if, as many suspect, the cracks in the Woods foundation date back to 2010, there is fodder. He opened 67 that year, then shot 73-73-72. So if you tack on Thursday’s 76, it means he is 6 over for his past four rounds over the Old Course, after having been 38 under for his first nine trips as a pro.
Even if you had witnessed the mess in Phoenix, the Farmers walk-off, the T-69 at the Players and the 80-76 at the U.S. Open that included the unforgettable memory of a topped 3-wood from the 18th fairway into a bunker, this 76 was disconcerting.
Not just because you considered it unexpected, but because he seemingly accepted it.
“I’m going to have to have the conditions tough and then obviously put together some really solid rounds,” Woods said, as if he were mapping out a plan of attack.